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Is it possible to teach a chimpanzee how to communicate?
With stories of "feral children" being reported in India and the popularity of books such as Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book and Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan of the Apes, the prospect of teaching language skills to chimpanzees or orangutans didn't seem so far-fetched during the 1920s and 1930s. While early research by such pioneers as Russian primatologist Nadiya Ladygina-Kohts and American psychologist Lightmer Witmer helped demonstrate the innate problem-solving skills of chimpanzees, they also raised intriguing speculations about whether true communication between humans and non-humans might be possible.
In 1912, it had been Witmer who publicly suggested that "within a few years chimpanzees will be taken early in life and subjected for purposes of scientific investigation to a course or procedure more closely resembling that which is accorded the human child." But could raising a young chimpanzee in the same way that human children were raised lead to their developing actual language skills? This was the question that Winthrop and Luella Kellogg would test in a very personal way.
Inspired by stories about Kamala and Amala, the two "wolf-girls" who had been reported in India not long before, Winthrop Kellogg had been newly-hired as a psychology professor at Indiana University when he approached Yale primatologist Robert Yerkes with a unique research proposal in 1930. By placing an infant ape (whether chimpanzee or orangutan) in a human home and raising that ape alongside a human child of the same age, Kellogg argued that the ape could be socialized like a human and develop language skills.
To make their experiment as realistic as possible, the Kelloggs convinced Yerkes to allow them to conduct their research at the Yale Anthropoid Research Station in Orange Park, Florida. Established in 1930 and operated by Yale University, the station was one of the main primate research facilities in the United States and had an international reputation for groundbreaking research. Later rechristened the Yerkes National Primate Center and relocated to Emory University in Georgia, the station was ideal for what the Kelloggs were planning since it had all the facilities they would need. To fund their research project, the Kelloggs took a leave of absence from Indiana University and arranged for a grant from the Social Science Research Council during their stay in Orange Park.
The first research subject in the Kelloggs' study happened to be their infant son Donald who was born on August 31, 1930. All that remained was to get a suitable infant chimpanzee. In mid-1931, the Kelloggs received their other research subject. Gua, an infant chimpanzee, was born in Cuba's Abreu Colony on November 15, 1930 and subsequently shipped to the Yale Station to become part of their permanent collection. For the course of the planned study, which was intended to cover the first few years of their lives, Donald and Gua would be raised together as siblings so the Kelloggs could monitor how they both developed.
What followed was what Winthrop Kellogg would later describe as one of the most difficult research projects he and his wife had ever attempted. "Had we at that time any knowledge of the personal deprivation to be demanded by the undertaking, it is doubtful if we would have persisted further in the endeavor to bring it about," he wrote, ruefully. Not only were they first-time parents, but their experience in raising a chimpanzee was largely theoretical at that point.
"Let us suppose," the Kelloggs wrote, in their later book describing their experiment, "that by some queer accident a human infant, the child of civilized parents, were abandoned in the woods or jungle where it has had as companions only wild animals. [The comparison to the fictional Tarzan is evident.] Suppose, further, that by some miraculous combination of circumstances it did not die, but survived babyhood and early childhood, and grew up in these surroundings. What would be the nature of the resulting individual who had matured under such unusual conditions, without clothing, without human language, and without association with others of its kind? That this is not so fanciful a conception as to lie altogether outside the realm of possibility is attested by the fact that about a dozen instances of "wild" foundlings of this sort are known to history. To be sure the reports about them are in many cases so garbled and distorted that the true facts are hard to shift out. In some, however, the accuracy of the accounts is well established."
They already knew of similar stories of feral, including Victor the Wild Boy of Aveyron, Kaspar Hauser, and the wolf girls that had been reportedly found in India. In providing Gua with the kind of social development human children normally received, the Kelloggs hoped to disprove many of the genetic theories of human behaviour that were already being used to justify the appalling eugenic policies being advocated across the United States. Instead, Winthrop Kellogg had a more optimistic view about human nature which he discussed in his book:
"It would be quite possible according to the latter view to take the child of criminal delinquents, provided he was normal at birth, and by giving him the proper training, to make him a great religious or moral leader. Conversely it would be possible to take the child of gifted and upright parents and by placing him in a suitable environment, to produce a criminal of the lowest order. Heredity, in this view, assumes a secondary role and education or training becomes the important item."
Much like John B. Watson and other behaviourists, the Kelloggs insisted that upbringing played an essential role in shaping human development. While they knew there were limits to how far Gua could progress even if raised like a human child, they did hope to prove that an infant chimpanzee could acquire language skills if the training began early enough.
Being practical experimenters, the Kelloggs began by taking measurements for both Donald and Gua - height, weight, blood pressure, etc. Gua was rated as having the bone structure of a human child twice her age with sixteen of her "baby teeth" at the time she was separated from her mother. In many ways, she was far in advance of Donald who was a typical human baby with limited motor development. They then placed both their infants on a daily schedule including waking up at 7 AM, getting their breakfast, sitting in identical high chairs while the adults were having breakfast, then regular play sessions and naps (Donald needed more nap time than Gua).
Both infants received an identical diet including warm milk, cereal, orange juice, and fruit. There were still a few differences in their diets considering Gua's fondness for eating insects as well as flowers and the leaves of some plants (Donald was a little more particular about what he ate). Though the Kelloggs noted other differences between Donald and Gua which became more evident over time, they did their best to provide both infants with the same learning opportunities. They even had a special walker made for Gua which matched the walker used by Donald though Gua never used it for walking the way Donald did.
In the months that followed, the Kellloggs would carefully record everything they learned about their two subjects. While Gua never mastered language the way they had hoped, what the Kelloggs eventually discovered would help rewrite everything psychologists thought they knew about how humans and non-humans developed .
To be continued.
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